This story was originally published in the January/February, 2010, issue of Inside Triathlon magazine. It was part of the magazine’s 2009 Ironman World Championship Coverage. By TJ Murphy
Two decades ago Mark Allen reversed the course of his life. When he stepped on the starting line of the 1989 Hawaii Ironman, he had yet to win the coveted championship even though he had been in the mix since 1982, usually failing in spectacular ways (epic physical meltdowns, internal bleeding, bike machinery freak-outs). Dave Scott’s six masterful Hawaii wins must have loomed like a mountain.
In his 2008 book, “Fit Soul, Fit Body,” co-authored with his teacher, Brant Secunda, a Huichol Shaman and healer, Allen describes how fear used to be the crux of his problem.
“Every time I competed in the Ironman, fear would well up inside of me. I felt completely vulnerable to the thought that I had not done enough of the right kind of training to get my body ready. Everyone else seemed more prepared than I was. I trembled at the idea of not knowing where I would possibly find the strength of soul to make it through the thousands of moments when my body would scream out for me to stop. This fear could have been paralyzing, except for this simple teaching from Brant: ‘Be fearless in the face of your fears.’”
Allen would win in 1989 and go on to win a total of six before his retirement. His presence continued to be felt in the race, as he became a critical adviser to others who struggled to secure success in Kona. In finally winning the Hawaii Ironman in 2007 after seven years of failing, Chris McCormack, in an interview conducted the day after the race, said it was Allen’s counsel that made the difference. Peter Reid made similar statements.
It almost frustrates Allen that more Ironman athletes don’t pursue a metaphysical side of training. In an interview last year about the current pro field, Allen lamented, “There is still not one athlete who is incorporating anything other than numbers in the logbook to go fast. Anyone out there that you can think of that focuses on developing strength of inner character as a viable tool to go fast in Kona?”
Two days before the race this past October, Allen introduced me to one of the age-group athletes he coaches, Diane Calderon. “She gets it,” Allen told me. Calderon is 50 years old and lives in Scarsdale, N.Y. Within triathlon she hails from the 1980s era.
“It was a different scene back then,” she says. “I used my brother’s 10-speed to jump into the Westchester triathlon.” Calderon recalls the sport being more about the adventure than the competition. She qualified for the Ironman World Championship at St. Croix in 2005, ultimately finishing seventh in her age group at Kona. She then crossed into a different triathlon culture, where a competitive aura had supplanted the spirit she recalled from the 1980s, and she could feel it draw her in. Calderon, married with three children, was impassioned with the vision of returning to Kona, but in 2006 her plans were upended by a Lyme disease infection and an ensuing case of meningitis. She recovered and tried again in 2007, where she qualified for Kona at the Buffalo Springs Lake 70.3, but she was struck by a car while riding, two times, on a thin strip of road near her house. “It’s Route 22, with two lanes and a tiny shoulder. Second time I was going northbound. It was a hit and run. I could barely walk for two weeks.”
Calderon didn’t give up, making her Hawaii comeback in 2009. She says the setbacks had a calming effect and freed her from competition anxieties. “It’s about perspective,” she says. “I felt sheer joy the first time I came to the Ironman because I had never been to Hawaii. I remember being in the race and just screaming because it was so great, because it’s so wonderful to be able to do such a thing.” Rather than get caught up in the hamster wheel of obsessing over an annual Kona slot, Calderon pledged to stay in the moment and simply enjoy it all.
“Here the real melancholy began, when the runner might ask himself just what the hell he was doing to himself. It was a time for the most intense concentration, the iciest resolve.” These words were written by John L. Parker in the cult-classic running novel, “Once a Runner.” For those who have tasted the shock of racing one mile all-out, he nails it. The stunning amount of discomfort that is part and parcel of distance athletics leaves many wondering why any sane person would volunteer for it all.
In his lectures, running coach Jack Daniels talks about how few American kids ever start off wanting to be runners—usually they run or go out for track to train for another sport, so my path into the long-distance world might sound familiar to you. Track was secondary to American football for me, and I was one of those kids in track who started off in seventh grade seeming like I was destined to be a sprinter. I ran the 100, the 200 and the sprint relays. I wasn’t the fastest but I was close.
Time tumbled forward and by ninth grade a few others caught up. That was all it took to bump me out of the short sprints and the sprint relays. Coach Denny Kohl (I remember it all well) then put a hand on my shoulder and enthusiastically told me how it “was time to move up to the ‘master sprinter’s race.’” He implied it was a great day, a graduation, and it was time to move up to the 400 meters. As any kid who ever raced the 400 meters can tell you, being moved up from the 100 or 200 to the 400 does not feel like a promotion. The first time I raced it I ran 56 seconds. It was a blood lactate horror show, more uncomfortable than anything I’d ever imagined, as I tried to fight through the leg-melting fatigue by clenching my fists and teeth (told later “Boy, the bear really jumped on your back!”), a state that Parker described as the hero of his novel survived a one-mile race: His body rigged up in true fashion, getting the jaw-shoulder lock and the sideways final straight fade and he began to lose all semblance of control. He peered out at all this as the orb was about to burst, letting all the poison flood out, peered at it and quite calmly wondered, When will it all end?
So as time began to bare my fast-twitch limits (and, coincidentally, no one offered me a football scholarship), coaches moved me to the 400, then the 800, and later on in life the mile, the 5K, the 10K, the marathon, to triathlon, to the Ironman. I’m sure that those from competitive swimming and cycling backgrounds can describe similar journeys through sport and into triathlon, and all of us at one time or another, when a blast of cold, grim reality hits in the bad part of a race, have had to square off with the existential question: Just what the hell am I doing to myself?
The discomfort produced in a long-distance event like the marathon or an Ironman is different and much more varied than events near the range of a mile. It’s the searing nature of oxygen debt in the shorter stuff versus the slower boil of glycogen depletion when minutes turn to hours. Holding race-pace after encountering the fabled glycogen-depletion “wall” in a marathon is doable, but you have to deal with it in minutes that bleed on like hours.
For the Ironman triathlete, glycogen depletion is just a slice of the M-Dot pie because you’re out there so frightfully long. Add to all this the afternoon heat and humidity of Hawaii, the soul-draining winds, muscle cramps, stomach shutdowns, barfing, third-degree sun burns, salt-water chafing, flat tires, blood and blisters, the occasional delusion and the all-powerful “Pit and the Pendulum” swings of brain chemical-created doom and gloom. In an Ironman, there is no let up.
As Hawaii Ironmans go, the conditions in 2009 were tough, but on the Richter scale of Kona old-timers, it placed down the list from the really bad years. However, it was hotter and more humid than in 2008, and the winds were bad too.
Regardless, for anyone vying to record a PR, win an age group or, the pinnacle of the sport, win the Hawaii Ironman, it’s going to be uncomfortable no matter how sparkling the conditions. One moment from the 2009 race that will live on in perpetuity played out at Mile 21 on the run course, when the returning champion, Craig Alexander, averaging 6:24 miles for the marathon, passed Chris Lieto. One thing that makes the marathon in Hawaii drastically different than say, the New York City Marathon, is that it’s not only a warm day in general, but the top athletes run during the hottest part of it. Running at 9 a.m. compared to 1 p.m. is an apple versus a hot potato. And in Kona’s Natural Energy Lab—a four-mile out-and-back preceding the point where Alexander and Lieto started going toe-to-toe—temperatures hit 120 degrees F., which made it all the more unbelievable to see Lieto shake off a cramp and match Alexander. Often, the victim of such a pass can manage to respond for only a matter of seconds before the great reality check. Lieto gritted his teeth and hung on for half a mile, in the no-man’s-land of the last 10K of the marathon.
To whatever degree Allen’s assessment is accurate—how many of today’s stars pursue a tangible plan to increase their strength of character and redirect the fear that comes with putting it all on the line?—clearly the best are digging deep into something. In interviews conducted with Lieto, Alexander and Chrissie Wellington after the race, I asked each what it was they dug into in the darkest, hardest parts of the race.
Alexander relies on thinking of his wife, Neri, and their two children. “I think a lot about my family out there,” he said. “Without their support I wouldn’t be here. I wouldn’t be racing at this level. I wouldn’t come to America six of seven months a year if they didn’t come with me. I’m eternally grateful.”
“My family means a lot,” Lieto said softly in agreement. “I want to be an example to my son. To make my wife proud. But I also want to be an example to everyone, as much as I can. I draw a lot from my faith. This race is a praise to God and what he’s done in my life and the gifts he’s given me. That’s why I pushed myself. That’s why I wanted to win.”
Wellington has become a spokeswoman for several charities that she hopes to draw attention to through her racing, including Girls Education Nepal, Envision (a youth empowerment program in the United Kingdom), the Kids Foundation and the Jon Blais Foundation for ALS. Wellington says that grounding her triathlon success in supporting these organizations is what helps her give triathlon the single-minded dedication she pours into it. Wellington draws on this equilibrium to propel her training, and she adds that it’s by keeping the physical demands of training at a high level that she can deal with what race day conjures up.
The bottom line for Wellington is that preparing for the mental side of the Ironman is concurrent with training for the physical side. “If you suffer in training, you know you can suffer on race day.”
Of course, Wellington has yet to lose an Ironman. She has raced eight Ironmans and won them all, an electrifying statistic, so she has yet to taste the fear that Allen did when he lost the race year after year to Dave Scott. Much as Scott did during the 1980s, Wellington brings to Kona the charge of great confidence that comes with having broken the tape. Fear may play a great part in her future, but today it’s not apparent.
In Alexander’s view, the more tools the better. “This race is mental,” he explained. “You draw on whatever you can. No one is moving well the last six miles. You take inspiration from wherever you can get it.”
In “Fit Soul, Fit Body,” Allen admits that the lethal combination of exhaustion and doubt had pressed him to the breaking point by 1989. “I was questioning whether I should just give up on my dream of winning Ironman altogether … I began to realize that it wasn’t a failure of my body that was keeping me from winning; it was a failure of my mind. But at the time, I had no idea what that was or how to develop it.” In the years after his first Kona win, Allen would retreat from his Ironman buildup to work with Secunda, for a matter of days, exclusively on the strength of character he found essential to delivering maximum performance.
Allen’s challenge was of a unique magnitude. It wasn’t that he couldn’t deliver a great performance before 1989, but beating Scott required ripping open new territory. Through the pressure the two built in their rivalry, they took the sport to levels well ahead of its time. Consider 1989, when the pair swam 51 minutes, biked 4:37 and ran 2:40:04 (Allen) and 2:41:03 (Scott), for these respective overalls: 8:09:15 and 8:10:13. The third-place finisher was Greg Welch, more than 20 minutes back. In the years following this breakthrough, Allen would crack 8:10 two more times, in 1992 ( 8:09:08) and 1993 (8:07:45). With the exception of Normann Stadler’s 8:11:56 in 2006, most of the men’s winning times in the past 10 years have averaged out to 8:20. You can make the argument that, when it comes to the Hawaii Ironman, no one has drawn more from the inner depths than Allen.
I asked Allen if the advice on fear he imparts to the likes of a Chris McCormack is the same he would offer to an age-grouper like Calderon.
“That’s the beauty of what we talk about in ‘Fit Body, Fit Soul,’” he says. “The tools within the book work inside-out. There are core issues about who you are and what is holding you back, and how you transform those things and not let them affect you and your performance. For someone like Diane, it may be a fear of a mass swim start that’s holding her back. For someone like Chris McCormack, it might be a fear that he’s never going to be able to win the Ironman. Whatever it is, the tools in the book are meant to help you get below the surface of these issues and deal with them in a deep way, rather than just on the surface.”